Just as last week’s episode of the HBO docu-series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst closed with the investigation into the disappearance of Kathie Durst becoming a cold case bound for the archives, this week’s episode – “The Gangster’s Daughter” – opens with a revisiting of the case 20 years later. What caused this? A tip from a prison stooge who claimed to have information on the death of Kathie Durst.
The news caused renewed hope in Kathie’s friends and family, and investigators, acting on new information, began to explore the former Durst lake house. They uncovered a storage room hidden in a closet behind some shelves. It’s rather shocking that, given Kathie’s mysterious disappearance, no one thought to search her last known whereabouts. After searching the house, removing entire sections of a bedroom wall, and sending diver’s to search the lake, investigators came up empty-handed.
Further exploration led investigators to Susan Berman, a close college friend of Robert Durst who allegedly protected him from the press after Kathie’s disappearance. Berman, the daughter of an infamous West Coast gangster, had a lot in common with Durst, including the loss of their mothers to questionable circumstances. Although it was never confirmed, numerous reports indicated that Berman believed her mother death, officially labeled a suicide, was perhaps the result of foul play. Berman felt an incredibly tight kinship with Durst and was allegedly attracted to the sense of wealth and power he radiated, according to close friends, and she became his spokesperson during the days following Kathie’s disappearance.
The most interesting hypothesis forwarded in the episode is the theory that Berman was the one – not the police – to feed reporters the line that Kathie Durst was seen that evening by her doorman as she was entering her building. The documentary casts doubt as to whether or not Kathie was actually seen that last evening or if she’d even called in sick to medical school the following day. Many believe it was Susan Berman, not Kathie Durst, who placed that call.
So what happened to Kathie Durst? Unfortunately, there is no evidence that she is dead or that Robert Durst had anything to do with it. When interviewed by Jarecki, Durst blinks and stutters his way around an answer – he doesn’t know that she’s dead. He doesn’t know where she is. He suspects she may be dead. There’s a bit about collect calls placed from New Jersey to the Durst company, and Jarecki tries to pin Durst down on who made these calls (Durst was famous for making collect calls because he was too cheap to pay for the calls himself). If these calls were placed by Durst in New Jersey, then it would pinpoint a potential location for Kathie’s body – if Durst killed her at all.
So, twenty years later, how does Susan Berman continue to feature in all of this? The Los Angeles police department reaches out to her to question her about Kathie’s disappearance. She relays this information to Durst over the phone, commiserating with him over his seemingly endless persecution. A few short weeks later on December 24, 2000, Susan Berman was murdered in her Los Angeles home, shot in the head.
Jarecki includes crime scene photos (very little of the body) to prove the untouched nature of her home, leading police to believe Berman knew her killer. As news of Berman’s death reaches the East Coast, those who were investigating Kathie’s disappearance immediately thought of Robert Durst. The timing was incredibly convenient as she was about to be questioned in the case. Jarecki again tries to probe Robert Durst for additional information, cracks in the blank slate that is his face, but he gets nowhere. Los Angeles investigators consider Berman’s family involvement with the mob as the cause of her death – she was working on journalism and television projects involving the history of the mob and reportedly had a huge story to break. Had she lived, of course.
The problem with the mob involvement angle is this: a letter was mailed to Beverly Hills police the day before her body was found. Clearly, the murderer wanted her body found before decomposition occurred. Was this murder the action of someone who ultimately cared for her?
Jarecki then takes a seemingly odd turn in his exploration of the case. He is a gifted filmmaker, drawing the audience toward conclusions he clearly holds dear. He begins to explore Susan Berman’s financial state. She was in debt and behind several months on her mortgage. She had written several screenplays, but Hollywood wouldn’t bite. Out of “desperation” (according to friends), she began asking for money from acquaintances and kept a log of the transactions on her personal computer. Who do you think appeared on the list? Yup, Robert Durst who had provided Berman several tens of thousands of dollars. The immediate suspicion is that Berman attempted to blackmail Durst for a larger sum of money before submitting herself to questioning by the LAPD.
Around the time of the funeral, Durst was in Los Angeles and made contact with several of Berman’s friends. The subtext here is that perhaps Durst learned from his mistakes with Kathie whose friends rallied against him and drove suspicion in his direction. The next development in the case is Durst’s arrest for the series-beginning death and dismemberment in Galveston, Texas. The trail of death following Durst now totaled the suspicious disappearance of Kathie Durst, a suspected connection to the murder of Susan Berman, and the murder of a neighbor in Galveston.
And what does Durst do? He shaves his head and eyebrows and goes on the run, famously apprehended after attempting to shoplift a $6 chicken sandwich.
This engaging episode theoretically completes the exploration into the various murders in which Durst was allegedly involved. Jarecki covers a great deal of information yet always seems to draw logical and clear parallels. Documentary filmmakers often dance between relating the facts and letting their own opinions shape the output. It’s unavoidable. It’s human nature. In my opinion, the subtext through the episode is that Jarecki believes Durst was heavily involved in Susan Berman’s death. The lines are drawn, and the connections are there.
It’s less clear, though, than the evidence around the Galveston murder that opens the show. What’s driving me nuts is how can this man still be walking around after so much evidence exists against him?
Guess I’ll have to tune in next week to find out.